The Resurrection of Privacy?

The video below is the slideshow of my presentation this morning at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Nottingham – and what follows it are some brief notes to support it. Some of this is speculative and some of it is contentious – particularly in relation to the relative importance of corporate and governmental surveillance – and this is an early stage of this research, though it builds on the work in my book, Internet Privacy Rights. I should also note that this is a development of the paper I gave at BILETA earlier this year: ‘who killed privacy?’

 

The Resurrection of Privacy?

In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously said:

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Events and developments since 1999 have hardly improved the prospects for privacy: the growth of social networking, technological developments like smartphones, geo-location, business ideas such as behavioural tracking and, most recently, the revelations from Edward Snowden about the near universal surveillance systems of the NSA, GCHQ and others. If privacy was in trouble in 1999, the argument that it is at least close to death in 2014 is much stronger.

That brings two questions:

  • If privacy is dead, who killed it? Did we kill it ourselves? Is it the activities of government agencies like the NSA and GCHQ, or of businesses like Google and Facebook?
  • If if privacy is in fact dead, is there a possible route towards its resurrection?

Suspect 1: us!

On the face of it, it might appear as though we ourselves have simply given up on privacy. We’ve killed it ourselves by embracing all the privacy-invasive technology that’s offered to us, by failing even to read privacy policies, by allowing the intelligence services to do whatever they want, with barely a murmur of protest. More than a billion of us have joined Facebook, for example, a service based at least in some ways on giving up on privacy, sharing our most intimate information.

That, however, is not the whole story. In many ways it appears that what we have done has been through a lack of awareness rather than by deliberate decisions. The extent to which people understand how systems like Facebook work is hard to gauge – but the surprise that people show when bad things happen suggests that there isn’t a great deal of awareness. It also appears that people are becoming more aware – and as they become more aware, they’re making more privacy-based decisions, taking control of their privacy settings and so forth.

Further, when we’re given the chance to see how intelligence agencies work, we don’t seem to be happy about it – though less, it has to be acknowledged, in the UK than in many other countries. Even so, when the Communications Data Bill was put under full scrutiny, it was rejected – in part because of the public reaction. Further, studies show that people don’t like behavioural advertising – and dislike it more when they learn more about how it works.

All this suggests that we aren’t really the key to the death of privacy: we’re more like unwitting accomplices.

Suspect 2: the NSA and GCHQ

The revelations of Edward Snowden about the surveillance activities sent shockwaves through the internet. Many people had already believed that the NSA, GCHQ and other agencies performed surveillance on the internet – Snowden’s revelations seemed to prove it, and to suggest that the level of surveillance was greater even than that feared by the more extreme of conspiracy theorists. Not just had they been gathering telephony and internet data and building (in the US) massive data centres, but they’d been accessing the servers of the big commercial internet providers, tapping into undersea cables, intercepting traffic between server sites and undermining encryption systems – and much more. The level of privacy invasion is extreme.

However, until Edward Snowden revealed all of this, the agencies were working largely in secret – and while this still constitutes a major invasion of privacy, the impact on people’s behaviour is much smaller. If we don’t know we’re being watched, our actions aren’t chilled – and our beliefs about privacy are not changed. Moreover, the kind of harms done to people by surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ are indirect, at least for most people. Finally, and most importantly, if it were not for the commercial operators’ surveillance, the NSA and GCHQ would have far less to ‘feed’ on.

All this is not to dismiss the role of the intelligence services or indeed the impact of their surveillance activities – they should be resisted with the utmost vigour – but in terms of the death of privacy, they can be seen more as opportunist accomplices, rather than instigators.

Suspect 3: businesses like Facebook and Google

The role of the commercial operators on the internet, on the other hand, is both deeper and more significant either than is often believed or than the role of governments and government agencies on their own. The commercial entities have contributed to the decline of privacy in three kinds of ways:

  • Systematic – commercial entities have undermined privacy both in technological and business model senses, developing technologies to invade privacy and business models that depend on systematic and essentially covert gathering of personal data. Businesses have also lobbied strongly to reduce the effectiveness of legal privacy protection. In Europe they have done their best to undermine and weaken data protection – including the on-going reform process. They continue to do so, for example in relation to the right to be forgotten. In the US, they have contributed to the effective scuppering of the Do Not Track initiative.
  • Cooperative – businesses have been working with governments, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. The extent of this cooperation and the extent to which is has been willing is unclear – though recent statements from the NSA have suggested that they did know about it and did cooperate willingly. Further, they kept this cooperation secret – until it was revealed by the Snowden leaks.
  • Normative – businesses have been attempting to undermine the idea that privacy is something to value and something of importance. Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion that ‘privacy is no longer a social norm’ is reflected not just words but actions, encouraging people to ‘share’ information of all kinds rather than consider the privacy impact. Further, they continue to develop technologies that invade privacy inherently – from geo-technology to wearable health monitoring and things like Google Glass.

All this combines to make the role of the businesses look most significant – if anyone is guilty of killing privacy, it is Facebook and Google rather than the NSA and GCHQ. Moreover, the harms to most people possible from corporate surveillance are both tangible and more likely than harms from the NSA and GCHQ: impact on things like insurance, credit ratings, employability, relationships and so forth are not just theoretical.

As Bruce Schneier put it:

“The NSA didn’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s just spy on everybody.’ They looked up and said, ‘Wow, corporations are spying on everybody. Let’s get ourselves a copy.’”

And as Timothy Garton Ash said when considering the Stasi:

“…the Minister for State Security observed that the results achieved by his ministry ‘would be unthinkable without the energetic help and support of the citizens of our country’. ‘For once,’ I comment, ‘what the Minister says is true.’”

Where the Stasi needs the citizen informers, the new surveillance programmes need the ISPs and the internet giants – the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts, Yahoo!s, Apples and so forth. That is what makes their role in the reverse so important.

The resurrection of privacy

In the post-Snowden environment, at least on the surface, businesses have started to take a more ‘pro-privacy’ stance. Whether that meaningful, or they are just paying lip service to it, has yet to be seen. Their role, however, is crucial.

Reversing the three roles noted above – systematic, cooperative and normative – could produce a positive impact for privacy, effectively being a part of the ‘resurrection’ of privacy:

  • Systematic – businesses could play a part by building more robust technology and developing more privacy-friendly business models
  • Cooperative – and Resistant. Businesses could cooperate more with civil society and academia in working towards privacy – and could do more to resist being co-opted by governments, not just being more transparent in their dealings with governments but acting as a barrier and protection for their users in their dealings with governments.
  • Normative – businesses could play a part in changing the message so that it becomes clearer that privacy is a social norm.

At the moment it seems unlikely that businesses will do very much of this – but there are a few signs that are positive. Real names policies have been relaxed on Google +, and even Facebook has shown some moves in that direction. All the big companies are doing more to secure their systems – encryption is more common, both in the infrastructure and in user systems. Google does at least seem to be making some attempt to cooperate with the right to be forgotten – though whether these attempts are being done in good faith has yet to be seen.

It will probably take a miracle – resurrections generally do – but miracles do sometimes happen.

Who needs privacy? All of us….

A couple of privacy stories have been making big news over the last few days. The first is the ‘celebrity photo’ saga – naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others have been ‘leaked’ onto the net. The second is the revelation that the Metropolitan Police obtained the telephone records of Tom Newton Dunn, the political editor of the Sun, in connection with the ‘Plebgate’ saga. Between them, the two stories highlight some of the ways in which privacy matters – and at the same time some of the misunderstandings, some of the hypocrisy, and some of the complexity of privacy.

Celebrities and privacy

The relationship between celebrities and privacy is a complex one. At one level – the level usually argued by the press (including the Sun) – celebrities have less of a right to privacy than the rest of us. After all, they put themselves in the public eye. They open their doors to the likes of Hello magazine – and they make millions from us, from our attention, so doesn’t that mean they have to sacrifice a bit of their privacy to us? The put themselves in the public eye – doesn’t that mean their lives are ‘public’, and drawing attention to them is in the ‘public interest’? This brings into play the classic question of what the difference is between what ‘interests the public’ and what is ‘in the public interest’. They’re certainly not identical – but there is a degree of fuzziness at times.

At another level – the level argued by the celebrities themselves – celebrities need more protection, and if not a stronger right of privacy then a stronger way to enforce that right than the rest of us. After all, celebrities are more likely to have their private lives intruded upon by the press. Paparazzi will point their long lenses into celebrity houses, pursue celebrities down the street, rifle through celebrities’ dustbins, much more than they will for the rest of us. A naked picture of Jennifer Lawrence will get a lot more clicks on the net than a naked picture of a ‘non-celebrity’. The phone hacking saga (of which more later) is just one example – and it’s no coincidence that many of those at the forefront of the campaign to implement the Leveson report are celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan.

There’s strength in both perspectives – and as both are regularly argued by people who are both articulate and very ‘media-savvy’ it is often hard to navigate between them. The courts try – but all too often, whatever they decide is damned by one side or the other.

The Press and Privacy

The Sun are justifiably angry about the revelation that their political editor’s phone records have been accessed by the Metropolitan Police – not least because the story being investigated actually concerned the activities of the police. There are conflicts of interest all over the place here – but also a much bigger point.

For the press to function well, it needs to have privacy. That is, it needs to be possible for the press to keep its sources secret, to protect those people who reveal the key information. If they can’t protect their sources, there’s a very direct chilling effect – people who might come forward with information will be afraid to do so, so that information will never be uncovered, and all kinds of stories that are very much in the public interest will never see the light of day. Members of the press need to have confidentiality – so that they are able to do their job, a critical job in holding the powerful to account. That means the police and the politicians for a start.

Hypocrisy and Privacy

And yet, the stench of hypocrisy is almost overwhelming here. This is the Sun, getting outraged about a breach in privacy. The same Sun who were part of the phone hacking saga, who regularly invade the privacy of all and sundry – celebrities are just one example – often claiming it is in the public interest, but still invading privacy.  The same Sun who were part of an often vicious onslaught on the Guardian in connection with the Snowden revelations. The Sun who often seem to operate as though no-one has any right to privacy – except their own journalists.

This kind of hypocrisy is matched by that of some of the hackers and champions of internet freedom who feel it’s OK to obtain and then release, gleefully, naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. Some seem to want their own anonymity and privacy, and think the NSA and GCHQ are nightmarish oppressors – but think that Jennifer Lawrence only has herself to blame for even having those photographs in the first place.

It’s a sadly common set of double standards – privacy doesn’t seem very important, indeed it often seems like something bad (‘privacy is for paedos’, in the words of Paul McMullan, former News of the World journalist) until it has an impact on you. The Sun’s outrage is particularly hypocritical, but at times almost all of us are guilty of it.

We all need privacy

The truth, at least as I see it, is that we all need privacy. We all need our privacy protected – and invasions of privacy should never be done lightly, without a thought for the consequences. Jennifer Lawrence – and all of us – should be able to take whatever photos we want of ourselves, however intimate. Members of the press should be able to communicate safely and securely with their sources. And we, ordinary people, should be able to go on with our ordinary lives without fear of their being exposed. Our lives aren’t any less important than those of celebrities or the press – and though the impact of privacy invasions on our ordinary lives may not be as earth shattering or newsworthy as those of celebrities, politicians and so forth, to us they matter. The revelation that NSA operatives thought looking at nude and sexual photos found by surveillance was fun, and sharing them with colleagues was just a perk of the job should repel us.

There are many other ways that invasions of our privacy have an impact upon us – things like affecting our job prospects, our insurance premiums, our credit ratings, our relationships – but there’s a bigger point here. These are our lives. This is part of our human dignity. Privacy is part of that, and it matters.  We should try to remember that for other people – and celebrities are people too.

Data and politics…

CarswellOne of the less obvious side shows to the defection of Douglas Carswell MP from the Tories to UKIP has been the report that he may be taking his data with him – detailed data about his constituents, it appears, and according to the Daily Mail people at UKIP are ‘purring’ at the prospect of getting hold of the data.

This raises many, many issues – not least data protection issues. The excellent Jon Baines (@bainesy1969 on twitter) has been blogging about political data issues for some time, not least how it appears that political parties ride roughshod over data protection law and yet somehow the Information Commissioner’s Office does not want to get involved. He’s written something today in relation to Douglas Carswell – you can read it here.  As Jon Baines explains, there are many legal issues to deal with, including a possible criminal offence.

Even setting the law to one side, there are some very disturbing aspects to this.

The first is a moral or ethical one – when people gave their data to Carswell, or to the local Conservative Party, they presumably intended (if they thought about it at all) to help the Conservative Party – Carswell was, at the time at least, a representative of the Conservative Party, and made many statements of loyalty. Would they be happy for that data then to be used by UKIP, a rival party? Some might have UKIP sympathies, and might well follow Carswell in his defection – but many others might not, and their data is being taken along with those who might defect, and without the chance to object or consent. Data protection law should require this – but in practice it might well fail to produce the results it should. Can we expect a moral or ethical approach from Douglas Carswell on the matter, recognising these issues? I doubt it very much. Morality and ethics are in very short supply in politics even at the best of times. These are very far from the best of times.

The second is a deeper one – it seems to me that we don’t consider nearly enough the impact of data on politics. The most obvious aspect of the Carswell business is the gathering of the data, but the use of that data is perhaps even more important and could have even more impact. I’ve written about this before – most notably in my book, Internet Privacy Rights – but it bears repeating. The use of data for political purposes is something of increasing importance. Obama knew that, and one of his key strategies for re-election was better use of data. This piece ‘How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters‘, gives at least a flavour of what Obama did – and the beginning of a sense of what might be possible in the future. Data such as that gathered by Carswell could be aggregated with other data, much of it commercially gathered, and used for profiling in increasingly sophisticated ways. Here’s a brief extract from my book (chapter 10) that hints at what kind of thing can – and almost certainly will – happen in the future. Indeed, some of it is already happening now.

“Imagine, for example, tailored advertisements created for individual ‘swing voters’ (selected automatically through profiling), pointing out a party’s positive steps in the policy areas that are most likely to interest them (also selected automatically), omitting those areas where party policy doesn’t fit, and couching it in a language appropriate to the individual’s ethnic, educational, cultural and linguistic background, illustrated with a few appropriate news TV clips, and playing background music exactly to the individual’s taste and voiced over by an actor that profiling reveals that individual likes? The reverse, of course, about the political party’s opponents – negative campaigning and personal attacks taken to an extreme level. This could be extended from tailored advertisements to whole ‘news’ pages where the ‘news’ provider has a particular political agenda, and also (and more simply) to individual automated emails.”

Now I don’t imagine for a moment that UKIP’s operation is anywhere near as sophisticated as that – right now, most UK political parties seem to be lagging far behind the US in this field – but the ideas and the possibilities ought to be giving us pause for thought. Recent events like the Facebook Experiment, which I’ve blogged about before, show how the internet can be used to manipulate people. Political manipulation is just one of the possibilities. We need to be very careful here – and pay more attention to how our data can be used to manipulate us.

Wikipedia and the Right to be Forgotten…

…or why Jimmy Wales might want to support a right to delete.

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 17.39.48

One of the more strident critics of the Google Spain ruling by the ECJ, bringing into action at least a form of the much derided ‘right to be forgotten’, has been Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. He has spoken and written about it in highly critical terms, calling it ‘one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen’ and, since Wikipedia itself started receiving notifications, ‘completely insane’. His statements, amplified by the obliging British press, were followed by his appointment to Google’s advisory committee on implementation of the court’s ruling. He has so far stood firmly by Google’s side, and against the ECJ – and yet, if looked at from the perspective of ‘openness’, there are arguments that he should shift his position. The so-called right to be forgotten – in some forms at least – is far from incompatible with the principles of openness that underpin Wikipedia. Indeed, it can be argued to be supportive of those principles – or even necessary to produce more openness in the way the internet operates for most ordinary people.

Wikipedia and ‘openness’

Wikipedia is viewed by many as the epitome of the new(ish) idea of ‘openness’ (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/10/wikipedia-isnt-perfect-model-channel-4-government) . Crowdsourcing information, allowing edits by anyone. Words like ‘participatory’, ‘collaborative’, even ‘democratic’ are used to describe it – indeed, it’s often used as an example of what those terms mean. These are words that are almost always used positively: participation, collaboration and democracy are seen as fundamentally ‘good’ things. Specifically, they’re seen as good things in relation to the internet: the fight for an ‘open’ and ‘free’ internet, a fight which the Wikimedia Foundation often seems to see itself at the forefront of, is a fight for the sort of internet built around participation, collaboration and openness.

But what does that mean in practice? Take a look at Wikipedia. As a teacher of university students, I often discuss the use of Wikipedia for research. In the old days, universities frowned on the use of Wikipedia – and we generally still disapprove of its use as a primary source (a citation of a Wikipedia page will raise both eyebrows and hackles in any university teacher) – but now it is usually seen as something very useful. You can get a broad brush view of a subject from reading the Wikipedia page – and you can find links to better, more reliable information about the subject. You don’t cite the Wikipedia page, but you can find sources that you can cite by looking at the Wikipedia page.

This all comes from both the strength and the weakness of Wikipedia. It is generally reliable – because crowdsourcing works, and because people with an intimate knowledge of all the various subjects contribute to it – but it is also, and just as importantly, ever-changing. It changes as events develop – new information appears, new views come in and, crucially, errors are corrected, biases revealed and changes made. Inaccurate and out of date information – and irrelevant information – is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

Deletion of information…

Let me repeat that.

Inaccurate, out of date and irrelevant information is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

That’s the strength of Wikipedia. Indeed, it is a key virtue of digital publishing – it is dynamic, not static. When errors creep in – whether by accident, by error, by biased editing, by malice (and cases of falsification of Wikipedia pages are well known, as are the strong and consistent critiques of both Wales and Wikipedia) the openness of the Wikipedia platform means that those errors, those biases, and so forth are open to being corrected. Information is deleted. That’s what makes Wikipedia great – and also what shapes the way we use it. We know Wikipedia isn’t set in stone, and that at any particular moment it may include errors or misunderstandings. We know that, so we don’t treat it with undue reverence. We check what we see against other sources. We look for alternative views and compare them to what we see on Wikipedia. We sometimes even help to edit Wikipedia. We treat Wikipedia as ‘organic’, growing and changing all the time.

Treating the internet as ‘organic’

Isn’t it appropriate – and desirable – to treat the whole internet in the same, open way? As organic, growing and changing all the time? Why should other material in the free floating internet be treated as inviolable; privileged by virtue of their form, if we are happy to see it otherwise with Wikipedia? In many ways we know that this is how the internet really is anyway – we know that when we look at a page we need to consider who created it, what sort of people they are, what biases they might have and so on. We know that new material is appearing all the time – every blog post, every newspaper article, every uploaded photo – and we should also understand that other material is being deleted or edited every day. Old, irrelevant or inaccurate information disappears every day. That’s part of the process – life and death are part of the same cycle.

What the internet isn’t, is a perfect archive of truth, set in stone as a record of perfect accuracy. To evoke otherwise, as Wales and the Wikimedia foundation have done, is simply false. It isn’t Asimov’s vision (deliberately misleading) of an Encyclopaedia Galactica in his seminal ‘Foundation’ books, designed to preserve and maintain humanity’s store of knowledge against barbarians and the decline of civilisation. It’s much closer to the reality of Wikipedia. Somewhere were things are being deleted all the time. Somewhere where routes to things are being corrected all the time. Somewhere that should be treated with respect but not reverence.

The right to delete – or the right to be forgotten

That’s where a right to delete – and yes, sometimes, a right to be forgotten fits in. It’s not such a big deal, really – things get deleted and forgotten all the time on the internet. Eric Schmidt and Jimmy Wales’ things, too. The right to be forgotten is just one of many mechanisms through which such deletions might take place. Almost completely overlooked in the media coverage, and the runaway notion that this is a ‘right for the rich and famous’ is the fact that already people with resources and knowledge use ‘reputation management’ services to hunt down and remove uncomplimentary things about them. Already ‘rights holders’ use copyright law to have things that breach their rights removed from the net – and routes to them removed, obscured or deleted. Already companies choose to cleanse old websites, to rebrand themselves and so forth. The right to be forgotten – both in its ‘Google Spain’ form and in a purer deletion of data form – would be just one of many tools through which the internet changes form. That constant changing should be understood and celebrated – and refined not fought and feared. It’s part of what makes the internet so great.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that it shouldn’t be treated critically. It should, very much so. It doesn’t mean that the Google Spain ruling is without fault – it isn’t, and the way that Google has implemented it to date has highlighted many of those faults. And yes, it’s a tool that could well be misused – most tools are, but we don’t outlaw kitchen knives because they could be used to stab people. For ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, it could be a real boon. Ordinary people need to be given a chance to contribute, to participate, to be part of that great community that so many of us hope the internet can become. Of course we need to find a way to make it work better. We need to set out more appropriate rules and good, solid guidelines as to how it should be operated – and to reduce the possibility of its misuse. We need all of this, both to help Google and to keep the internet open….

…because that’s the bottom line. Having ways to delete information isn’t the enemy of the internet of the people, so much as an enemy of the big players of the internet. In terms of the ordinary people, it’s very much the internet’s friend. Wikipedia demonstrates the need to have deletion and correction as well as addition as part of its toolkit. Jimmy Wales knows this, I suspect, though I’m not sure he’s applied this knowledge to the internet as a whole. He may not like the way that this particular tool has been developed – for judges and courts are often seen as the enemies of openness, and from an America perspective, European judges and courts may be the worst of all. Nobody wants to be told what to do – and often they’re quite right to resist what they’re told to do.

However, an excessive faith in the ‘record’ of the internet, and an excessive reverence for the way that the internet (and Google in particular) currently works are also enemies of real openness. We need to be open to changes – and yes, even changes in all of these.

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This blog post was inspired in part by reading Nathaniel Tkacz’s work on Openness.

Privacy invasive law in Mexico – guest post by Lisa M Brownlee

I’ve written about this before – but things have moved on, and not in a good way. Some aspects of the law discussed are deeply troubling, and privacy activists around the world should be concerned. The following is by Lisa M Brownlee – an information security/privacy and intellectual property legal scholar and author residing in Mexico, and someone whose work is well worth following, as is Lisa herself, on Twitter, where her tag is @lmbrownlee1. Her work on an early version of the law being discussed was published in ArsTechnica.


 

Mexico’s new telecommunications law – including controversial surveillance and data retention provisions.

On Wednesday, August 13, in a 4-3 vote, Mexico’s personal data protection authority, IFAI, (Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection) considered and voted against challenging the constitutionality of Mexico’s new telecommunications law, the Federal Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act (FTBA).

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) was also empowered to block the legislation on constitutional grounds but failed to do so by Wednesday’s challenge deadline. The Mexican legislature’s Chamber of Deputies, also empowered to prevent the law’s taking effect, was 12 signatures short of a vote to block the FTBA. FTBA therefore took effect on August 13.

Shortly after the vote, Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transport (SCT), Gerardo Ruiz Esparza welcomed the new law and hailed, among other provisions, the law’s authorization of SCT to establish new Internet connections in over 40,000 public places nationwide.

IFAI is mandated to protect the privacy and personal data of citizens, and thus had the authority to challenge the constitutionality of the data collection, retention and access provisions of FTBA Articles 189 and 190. During the hearing, IFAI members stated that the data collected and retained under the FTBA was not “personal data”, and that IFAI therefore lacked standing to bring the suit.

FTBA Article 189 requires telecommunications licensees and Internet service providers to provide real-time geographic location of any type of communication device to public servants and security officials at their request, without warrant. Article 190 provides for the collection of data pertaining to communications, including the-origin of calls, duration, location, text messages metadata, activity on the network, and for the retention of such data for up to 24 months. Both provisions provide warrantless access by a broad range of government and law enforcement personnel.

Human rights activists fighting the constitutionality of the FTBA’s geolocation and data retention and access provisions were disappointed in IFAI’s failure to take action. The Twitter hashtag #IFAIL arose shortly after the no vote, the tag being a play on IFAI’s name, designating failure to carry out its privacy and data protection authority.

The digital rights group R3D Mexico decried as indefensible the statement made by IFAI president Ximena Puente that the data retained by the telecommunications companies was not “personal data”, and later criticized the failure of IFAI, CNDH and the Chamber of Deputies to act.


 

We need to watch this space!

DRIP: web-mail and web-browsing….

One of the big questions concerning data retention and the hastily-passed DRIP is whether it applies to web-browsing activities. Indeed, Julian Huppert MP asked the question during that all-too-brief debate in parliament, and was assured that it did not. I was far from convinced by the answer, and remain far from convinced, particularly given the idea that this ‘update’ to powers is intended to cover activities like webmail and social networking messages. Some colleagues have been asking questions, and a reliable source within one of the US companies that operates webmail (amongst other things) told us that they don’t expect the data retention powers to apply, given that they have never done so and the government made clear that there was no change in that through DRIP. They added further that as a US company, they are in a very different situation to UK providers.

That leaves us in a very interesting situation. If you’re communicating by webmail or social networking, how can your activities be caught? I can see only two ways: directly from the webmail company, or by capturing web-browsing through the ISP. If there are other ways, I’d like to know… because in the current circumstances I can see only three options:

  1. That webmail and social networking will not be covered by DRIP. That’s almost inconceivable, given the intentions of DRIP and the extent to which communications of the kind that those behind DRIP want to capture take place on webmail and social networks; or
  2. That the non-UK webmail and social network providers have been misled, and DRIP will be used to compel them to gather and hold communications data concerning activities on their services; or
  3. That Julian Huppert – and parliament, and the people of the UK – has been misled, and DRIP will be used to gather web-browsing activities.

If there’s another option, I’d like to know it. It’s entirely possible, as I’ve been wrong often before, but I can’t see it immediately.

My instinct is that the third option is the most likely – and that the intent of DRIP was always to gather web-browsing activity. If we’d had proper time for scrutiny of the bill, and to get experts to ask questions in committee, we might know the answers – and make sure that appropriate balances and controls are put in place. We didn’t. I have a strong suspicion that was entirely intentional too.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle: a book for our times…

I was introduced to Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, by Professor Andrew Murray – one of the pre-eminent scholars in IT Law in the UK, and also on of my PhD supervisors. I know I’m very late to this game – the book came out in 2013, and all the cool people will already have read it or reviewed it, but in this case I think it’s worth it. And the fact that someone like Andrew Murray would recommend it should give pause for thought: this isn’t just an entertaining piece of science fiction, it’s a book that really makes you think. It’s not just a dystopian vision of the future, it’s one that is far, far closer to reality than almost any I’ve read – and dystopian novels and films are pretty much my favourite genre.

It’s a book that reminded me why, unlike most of my schoolmates, I always preferred Brave New World to 1984 – and why, of the various privacy stories of the last few months I suspect, ultimately, the Facebook Experiment and the ruling over the Right to be Forgotten will matter more than the passing of the deeply depressing DRIP. In the end, as The Circle demonstrates graphically, we have more to fear from corporate domination of the Internet than we do from all the spooks and law enforcement agencies.

The Circle from which the novel gets its name is a technology company that combines a great deal of Google and Facebook with a little dash of Apple and a touch of Twitter. It dominates search and social media, but also makes cool and functional hardware. Egger’s triumph in the Circle is that he really gets not just the tech but the culture that surrounds it – little details like sending frowns to paramilitaries in Guatemala echo campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls in their futility, superficiality and ultimate inanity. The lives portrayed in the Circle should send shivers down the spines of any of us who spend much time on Twitter or Facebook: that I read the book whilst on a holiday without much Internet access made the point to me most graphically.

Privacy is theft

Eggers echoes both 1984 and Brave New World in using slogans to encapsulate concepts – exaggerating to make the point. For the Circle, these are:

Secrets are lies
Sharing is caring
Privacy is theft

All three are linked together – and connected to the idea that there’s something almost mystical about data. We don’t just have no right to privacy, we have a duty to disclose, a duty to be transparent. A failure to disclose means we’re depriving others of the benefits of our information: by claiming privacy, we’re stealing opportunities and advantages that others have the right to. If we care about others, we should share with them. This is Facebook, this is Google Flu Trends – and it’s the philosophy that implies that those of us who oppose the care.data scheme through which all our health data will be shared with researchers, pharmaceutical companies and many others, are selfish Luddites likely to be responsible for the deaths of thousands.

It is also the philosophy behind a lot of the opposition to the right to be forgotten. That opposition is based on the myth – one that Eggers exposes excellently – that the records on the Internet represent ‘the truth’ and that tampering with them, let alone deleting anything from them, is tantamount to criminality. Without spoiling the plot too much, one of the characters is psychologically and almost physically destroyed by the consequences of that. Eggers neatly leaves it unclear whether the key ‘facts’ that do the damage are actually real – he knows that this, ultimately, isn’t the point. Even if it all were true, the idea that maintaining it and exposing it would be a general good, something to be encouraged and fought for, is misguided at best.

It’s about power – and how it’s wielded

In the novel, The Circle has the power – and it wields it in many ways. Emotional manipulation, keeping people happy and at the same time keeping them within the Circle, is the key point – and the echoes of the Facebook Experiment, about which much has been written, but much has missed the deeper points, are chilling here. One of the real functions of the experiment was for Facebook to find ways to keep people using Facebook…

Another of the key ways that the Circle wields power is through its influence over lawmakers – and the same is sadly evident of Google and Facebook, in the UK as much as in the US. In the UK in particular the influence over things like opposition to data protection reform – and the right to be forgotten – are all too clear. It would be great if this could change, but as in the novel, the powers and common interests are far too strong for much chance. More’s the pity.

As a novel, The Circle is not without fault. I guessed the main plot twist less than half-way through the book. There’s a good deal of hyperbole – but this is dystopian fiction, after all – and the tech itself is not exactly described convincingly. What’s more, the prose is far from beautiful, the characters are mostly rather two-dimensional, and often they’re used primarily to allow Eggers to make his points, often through what amount to set speeches – but Huxley was guilty of that from time to time too. Those speeches, however, are often worth reading. Here, one of the dissidents explains his objections:

“It’s the usual utopian vision. This time they were saying it’ll reduce waste. If stores know what their customers want, then they don’t overproduce, don’t overship, don’t have to throw stuff away when it’s not bought. I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do.”

“Mercer, the Circle is a group of people like me. Are you saying that somehow we’re all in a room somewhere, watching you, planning world domination?”

“No. First of all, I know it’s all people like you. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders.”

In that brief exchange Eggers shows how well he gets the point. A little later he nails why we should care much more about this but don’t, focussing instead on the spooks of the NSA and GCHQ.

“Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes.”

That’s the problem. We don’t seem to see the risk – indeed, just as in the novel, we willingly seem to embrace the very things that damage us. Lawmakers, too, seem not to see the problem – and as noted all too often allow themselves to be lobbied into compliance. The success of Google’s lobbyists over the right to be forgotten is testimony to this. Even now, people who really should know better are being persuaded to support the Circle sorry, I mean Google’s business model rather than address a real, important privacy issue.

Coming to a society near you…

We’re taking more and more steps in the direction of the Circle. Not just the Facebook experiment and the reaction to the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling – but even in the last week or two a House of Lords committee has recommended an end to online anonymity, effectively asking service providers to require real names before receiving services. This is one of the central planks of the way the Circle takes control over people’s lives, and one which our lawmakers seem to be very happy to give them. There are also stories going around about government plans to integrate various databases from health and the DVLA to criminal records… another key tenet of the Circle‘s plans… The ‘detailed’ reasons for doing so sound and seem compelling – but the ultimate consequences could be disastrous…

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Read the book. I’ll be recommending it to
my Internet Law and Privacy students, but I hope it’s read much more widely than that. It deserves to be.

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